Thank you all so much for your incredibly warm and lovely messages! It's so nice to be back and know that all of you are out there still reading.
Today I'm going to tell you about how I deal with the daily grind of WTF AM I MAKING FOR DINNER TONIGHT that makes even the most eager cook a little, shall we say, itchy. I don't know how many of you here are also following me on Instagram, where I mentioned this new way of meal planning back in January, so forgive me if this is a little repetitive, but I really do find it such a helpful way of working through the constant and unrelenting chore of having dinner on the table every evening that perhaps it can be useful to a few of you too.
Here's what I do: rather than sit down and write down a whole menu for each day of the week when meal planning (which was time consuming and eventually felt very...uninteresting and difficult), I decided to assign specifically themed meals to specific days of the week in a much looser fashion. Like this: On Mondays, we eat pasta. On Tuesdays, it's beans. Wednesdays are for chicken. Thursdays are soups or stews. Fridays is for fish. (Weekends are a free-for-all.) What this allows me is much more flexibility and also more rigidity at the same time, but in a way that feels both freeing and safe. Do you know what I mean?
Since Mondays are for pasta, it means that the week starts out very gently. All I need to do is make a pot of tomato sauce, which I could do in my sleep, and some green vegetable (sometimes, yes, it's just a sliced cucumber because I am only human, other times it's steamed broccoli or boiled chard). Dinner is very easy and almost always drama-free, because the boys both eat noodles and everyone's happy. It allows me to start the week off feeling somewhat capable and in control.
Tuesday is bean day and I usually end up making some kind of simple bean situation in the Instant Pot. This recipe (using Rancho Gordo cranberry beans, for example!) is wonderful and Bruno will eat at least three helpings of it. WHUT. I want to marry that recipe. The boys eat it plain or with a bit of bread and Hugo will have some avocado with it. We top it with cilantro and hot sauce and pickled onions and avocado. Sometimes, though, life is too crazy even for the Instant Pot and then I make a red or yellow lentil soup, which takes about 20 minutes and while Hugo will bellyache about it, both kids will usually eat it. (Obviously, it helps if I slice a hot dog into the soup, but I don't always do that because I don't want them to get used to hot dogs on the regular because I am MEAN and also sort of stupid seeing as we live in Germany and they already are used to eating them all the time everywhere gaaaaah.)
Wednesday is Chicken Day. Sometimes I make this Korean chicken, sometimes I make breaded cutlets (but let's be honest, rarely, because that set-up is way too time-consuming and annoying at this point in my life - I mean, keep in mind that unless there's a second adult here, I can't set foot in the kitchen without Bruno behind me dismantling literally everything in sight or physically hanging off of me or Hugo asking if he is finally allowed to watch something NO YOU CANNOT AND IF YOU ASK ME ONE MORE TIME CHILD I SWEAR TO...), but recently I discovered Diana Henry's baked chicken and it is so delicious and so easy and so...satisfying and impressive and perfect that it makes me happy every time I make it.
You make a soft little mixture of Dijon mustard, butter and herbs (she calls for tarragon, but I end up usually just using a bit of dried sage or nothing at all), then squash this all over a bunch of chicken thighs. Then you sprinkle breadcrumbs on top and stick it in the oven until browned and crisp. That's it. The crispy top pleases the children, the herbs and mustard make it sophisticated enough to not give you an existential crisis and it's on the table (from start to finish!) in 40 minutes. (The active time of 5 minutes is fast enough that I can trick the kids into leaving me alone while I do it.) SO GOOD.
It's one of only two recipes actually printed out and pasted to my refrigerator, that's how much I love it. (The other one is for this, but with yogurt/milk instead of buttermilk.)
The original recipe specifies chicken thighs (skinless, but bone-in) and it is definitely the way to go. HOWEVER, because of course, I have also tried this with skinless, boneless chicken breasts and while it's not nearly as juicy and toothsome and rich, it's totally fine. Just reduce the cooking time to 20 minutes and then use the broiler for 3 minutes at the end to brown and crisp the breadcrumbs. (The photos in this post are of the chicken breasts.)
The recipe comes from Diana's chicken cookbook and is definitely, positively, absolutely worth the price of the book. For some godforsaken reason, I only own this book on my Kindle, which drives me fucking bananas, because if I want to cook anything else from it, I have to keep re-entering my password and peering at the phone and then my children see me on the phone and then they WANT the phone and my fingers are dirty and stop screaming and oh my god no you can't have a snack and you can't have the phone and please go play and ten more minutes and I hate everything and I really don't understand why cookbooks even come in E-book form, it's so dumb.
Thursdays are soup/stew days, which means that sometimes we eat some sort of bean stew twice a week, but there are worse things, yes? Usually it's some sort of puréed vegetable soup and bread. Thank goodness for German bread, which is about 80% of what Bruno eats in total, period. And sometimes, depending on just how much of a surrender week it is, it's the day the boys get pastina in broth (as in bouillon cube or Better Than Bouillon) and I fantasize about being capable of drinking three glasses of wine at dinner (I can't even do one glass, just so you know, which seems really unfair).
Fridays are fish (and frozen peas). Either I stick a bunch of frozen fillets in tomato sauce and serve over rice from the rice cooker, or boiled potatoes if I'm feeling charitable, or it's fish sticks. And then my husband roots around in the pantry looking for the instant mashed potatoes because you can't possibly have one without the other and I decide that instead of dinner, I'm having a bath and listening to a podcast and no, please don't follow me, in fact, forget I even exist, someone else is in charge now good night and good luck.
Please, PLEASE, you well-meaning, lovely, wonderful people, do not tell me how quickly this phase will be over and that I'll miss it one day. PLEASE. I am fully aware of that. As in every day. It sometimes keeps me up at night! It also does not usually make me feel better in the moment. You know? Sometimes you just have to live it and be frustrated and tired and happy when the kids are finally asleep and that's okay too.
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Diana Henry's Baked Chicken with Dijon Mustard and Herbs
Adapted from A Bird in the Hand
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
A couple of pinches of chopped fresh herbs (like tarragon, thyme, oregano, basil, what have you)
1 3/4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 skinless, bone-in chicken thighs
Salt and pepper
2-3 tbsp bread crumbs (from stale, not fresh, bread)
1. Preheat the oven to 425F. Mash the Dijon mustard with the tarragon and butter until combined. Put the chicken into a roasting pan (or a baking dish) and brush or use your fingers to spread the mustard mixture onto the chicken. Season, then press on the bread crumbs.
2. Roast in the hot oven for 35 minutes. The chicken should be cooked through. Check this by piercing the flesh near the bone, with the tip of a sharp knife, in one of the larger pieces. The juices should run clear with no trace of pink. If not, cook for a few minutes more then test again. The top should be a lovely golden color.
3. Serve immediately with the cooking juices that have gathered around the chicken.